By Oakland Ross | Toronto Star
Awithering tropical sun beats down upon the teeming Plaza of the Revolution, where a familiar bearded gentleman in olive-green fatigues leans against a dark wooden podium and does what he does best.
He goes on and on and on.
How many rice-cookers did this Caribbean outpost of communism produce last year? (More than 3 million.)
How many electric stoves? (Some 2.4 million.)
How many refrigerators? (More than 250,000.)
By what proportion did the Cuban economy grow during the first trimester of this year? (A sprightly 12.5 per cent, if you believe the official figures.)
The hours plod past, slow as a splay-legged burro under a mountainous cargo of sugarcane, but the bare-headed man at the microphone scarcely seems to notice the passage of time, so engrossed is he in his words and ideas. No economic statistic is too inconsequential for him to highlight. No suspected act of U.S. aggression is too outlandish to denounce.
Meanwhile, a crowd officially estimated at 1 million swelters in the vast plaza and waits with almost superhuman patience for His Excellency Fidel Castro Ruz, first secretary of the Cuban Communist party, commander-in-chief of the Cuban Revolution, and president of the republic, to be done.
They have been waiting now for more than 47 years — and they are waiting still.
“The Cuban population is increasingly tired of the situation,” says a European diplomat in Havana. “But they are accustomed to waiting.”
Lately, however, the waiting has begun to wear thin, while the presidential lectures — albeit somewhat shorter than the five-hour epics of the past — have become downright painful.
“He goes around in circles now; he loses his place, forgets what he is talking about,” says the European. “He is boring.”
Fidel Castro — boring?
Autocratic, certainly. Obsessive, no doubt. Steadfast, to a fault. But boring?
Who could have dreamed it would one day come to this?
But so it has.
The land of salsa and cigars has travelled nearly 50 times around the sun since Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara marched down from the Sierra Maestra and advanced westward toward Havana, seizing power on Jan. 1, 1959.
Much has changed since then.
By any standard, Castro is an old man now — he will turn 80 on Aug. 13 — and he is definitely showing his age.
He can still soldier through one of his trademark marathon speeches — such as the magnum opus delivered at this year’s May 1 celebration of Cuba’s workers and the proletarian state — but his voice is reedy and he reads much of the text in an uninflected drone. He frequently loses his train of thought and sometimes fumbles helplessly among his papers in a state of pitiable confusion.
“He used to be like a magician, but he has lost a lot of power in his speech,” says the European diplomat. “The end cannot be very far away.”
Some observers might question that prediction, but everyone agrees aging is an irreversible process — and Castro is old.
In the relative intimacy of an indoor press conference, the comandante’s present-day demeanour can seem even more unstable than it is on a large, open-air stage.
He claps his hands at inappropriate moments and sometimes laughs for no apparent reason.
Occasionally, his hirsute features collapse into an inexplicable and almost buffoonish grin.
Late last month, during a public encounter in Havana with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — a close Castro ally and a younger, more vigorous man — the Cuban leader seemed thoroughly overshadowed by his table-thumping guest, upon whom he fawned in a way that seemed odd for a meeting between national leaders.
On the other hand, if you were receiving 90,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan oil on barter terms — as Cuba is — maybe you would be inclined to do a little public fawning, too.
In any case, no one seriously suggests that Castro is losing his grip, much less his mind.
“He’s in good health, as far as we can tell,” says one long-time observer.
It’s just that he is 79 years old, and so an undeclared deathwatch is now in effect among Castro’s political foes in Washington and Miami, as well as among his compatriots encamped across the length of this slender green island, stretching between the Straits of Florida and the Caribbean Sea.
Of course, expectations of Castro’s imminent demise have proved premature before, and they may well do so again.
In June 2001, for example, the Cuban exile community in south Florida exploded in collective elation amid reports that Castro had suffered a fainting spell in a Havana barrio while delivering yet another seemingly interminable discourse.
But the old man recovered and carried on, and here he is, five years later — pushing 80, it is true, and burdened by some of the physical infirmities and mental lapses that typically arise at such an age but still the political master of this palm-rimmed remnant of the Communist International, still capable of disgorging a four-hour speech in the scorching heat, even if he does occasionally forget what he is talking about.
“I now understand that my destiny was not to come into this world in order to rest at the end of my life,” he told the country’s National Assembly in March 2003. And he has remained true to his word since then, keeping up a punishing grind that would tax the stamina of a much younger man.
The problem, for Castro’s enemies, is that this native son of Santiago de Cuba happens to be an uncommonly determined individual, something he has proved time and again.
Here is one illustration, among many.
It was on Dec. 2, 1956, that a yacht called the Granma landed on the coast of Cuba’s Oriente province, bearing an intrepid force of just 81 men under the command of Fidel Castro Ruz. They intended to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Almost immediately, however, the fighters blundered into a disastrous encounter with units of the dictator’s National Guard. Exactly 12 of Castro’s men survived that dust-up, and any normal, sensible rebel leader would have known what to do right then and there: Give up.
But not Castro. Instead, he just kept on going. Two years later, following a campaign of sensational heroism and daring, he and his men did the unthinkable. They marched into Havana, triumphant.
Since then, Castro has continued to defy even longer odds, thumbing his nose at the world’s most powerful nation and living to tell the tale. It probably doesn’t hurt that he belongs to an uncommonly long-lived clan.
It is not inconceivable that he could be around for another decade or more, still waggling his finger at Washington, still goading his compatriots into another obedient show of revolutionary fervour, still reciting the latest refrigerator-production numbers in the leaden Caribbean heat.
But the betting is that he won’t.
“It could happen tomorrow,” a foreign observer says, referring to the prospect of Castro’s death. In fact, late last year, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reported that the Cuban leader has incurable, degenerative Parkinson’s disease.
That report is discounted by many observers here and has been shrugged off by Castro himself, but the man with the beard noticeably favours his right arm these days, often using his left hand to pour glasses of water for himself, for example, or to execute his patented oratorical gestures — the outstretched index finger used to issue a warning; the flattened palm that cuts the air like a knife; the upward-pumping forearm and clenched fist that are supposed to bring a sitting crowd to its feet.
The problem with Castro’s right arm might have less to do with a putative case of Parkinson’s, however, than with the lingering effects of a serious fall he took more than a year ago, after delivering a five-hour speech in the central city of Santa Clara.
He shattered his right knee and fractured his right arm, causing many of those in attendance to break down in tears, such was their distress at their leader’s suffering.
For his part, Castro’s chief concern was that he might lose his ability to handle a gun — perhaps an understandable reaction from a man who has survived innumerable assassination attempts over the years. Even today, he carries a sidearm almost wherever he goes, a Browning pistol with a 15-round magazine.
It might deter a human assailant, but it won’t stop Father Time. Try as he might, Castro is not going to outwit the clock the way he has outmanoeuvred, and in most cases outlived, a long succession of U.S. presidents — 10 of them so far and counting.
In recent months, Castro has taken to musing somewhat uneasily about the future. On at least two occasions since November, he has addressed the possibility that the revolution could eventually collapse of its own accord, under the combined weight of “indiscipline, corruption and negligence.”
“This country could self-destruct,” he warned in December.
To some degree, this process of disintegration may already have begun, and the government here is currently embarked on an aggressive and nearly unprecedented campaign against corruption among Cuban officialdom. At least one top Communist party member has already been sacked.
There is little doubt that Castro is personally on the case, for he remains a compulsive micro-manager, a man who hunkers down with his ministers, one on one, for meetings that not infrequently last until dawn and delve into even the most picayune aspects of a given policy and its implementation.
Last fall, for example, when Cuba dispatched a brigade of medical doctors halfway around the world to provide disaster relief to the survivors of Pakistan’s catastrophic earthquake, it can be taken for granted that Castro personally organized the mission in almost every detail, right down to approving the list of medicines each doctor carried in his or her backpack.
Much like the venerable mechanics who somehow keep Havana’s famous antique automobiles on the road, Castro in his twilight years continues to tinker under the hood of his life’s work, this haywire and jerry-rigged contraption known as the Cuban Revolution.
Somehow, the engine keeps turning over, the wheels remain connected to the chassis and the whole improbable enterprise continues to lurch along the crumbling streets of Old Havana, strangely magnificent even as it rattles and heaves, spewing thick brown smoke through the sunshine and the laurel trees.
But does anyone other than Castro himself have the faintest idea how to drive the thing?
“There is no other personality like Fidel in Cuba or in Latin America or in the world,” says the European diplomat. “People here won’t allow anyone else but Fidel to do what he does.”
Castro’s designated successor is his younger brother, Raul, who is Cuba’s defence minister and reputedly a more practical and less visionary man than Fidel. But Raul lacks a beard, not to mention a big, booming personality, and he is 75 years old himself — hardly a long-term solution to anything.
There seems little choice but to stake the revolution’s future on the country’s youth, a generation that has little experience of political power and no direct recollection of the predatory capitalism that Castro and his now-stooped comrades fought so bravely — and so long ago — to overcome.
“Now, I’m getting on in years,” Castro said last December in a rare interview, one in a series of conversations he has had over the years with Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde diplomatique. “The years keep coming, and the problem is really more generational .... New generations will replace others.”
Undoubtedly, they will. But to what end?
For almost 50 years, Castro has haunted, hectored, and enthralled this country. He has cowed his domestic opposition, mocked the United States and outfoxed a long succession of would-be assassins, all the while holding together a governing apparatus largely and perhaps exclusively through the force of his formidable will.
That’s a tough act to follow.
Lately, Castro has found political allies in Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia. But near the end of his life he remains what he has long seemed to be, an isolated figure at the helm of an anomalous state.
When he finally does go off to that great politburo in the sky, top party and military officials undoubtedly will have in hand a carefully rehearsed script.
First, they will likely try to keep Castro’s death a secret for at least several days, giving them time to steady their nerves and practise their lines, but eventually they will have to step into the light, to face the people and the music, sans Fidel.
What happens after that, no one really knows, but diplomats and other observers believe that the possibilities include: (a) a U.S. military intervention, although this is said to be unlikely; (b) a continuation of the status quo under a new ruler; (c) an internal and possibly bloody political collapse, triggered by the sort of infighting that Castro has long managed to suppress.
Or (d) the regime might attempt to chart a course of gradual reform, perhaps along the trail blazed by Beijing — capitalist-style economic changes combined with the maintenance of centralized control.
Maybe that would work in Cuba. Maybe not.
At 11:37 a.m., after three hours and 29 minutes at the microphone, the comandante-en-jefe decides that enough is enough for this year’s May 1 address. He draws his six-foot frame to attention, launches a final revolutionary slogan into the humid midday air — “Free Fatherland or Death!” — and within minutes he is gone.
At once, the crowd in the Plaza of the Revolution follows suit.
Swift as a Havana hotel worker pocketing a hard-currency tip, the vast square empties, until all that’s left is an infinity of little plastic Cuban flags cast upon the dusty ground, along with countless empty water bottles and scattered plastic sandwich bags — the only tangible evidence that, once upon a time, a massive throng stood here, cheering dutifully for a man named Fidel.